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Berlusconi wants to muzzle EU commissioners

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Tuesday that EU commissioners should not be allowed to speak publicly, and threatened to paralyze the decision-making process of the 27-nation bloc if he doesn't get his way.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Tuesday that EU commissioners should not be allowed to speak publicly, and threatened to paralyze the decision-making process of the 27-nation bloc if he doesn't get his way.

Berlusconi said he wants the European Union to change its public relations policy to prevent anyone besides the president of the commission from speaking publicly.

"We will not give our vote, effectively blocking the workings of the European Council, unless they prevent European commissioners and their spokesmen from speaking publicly on any issue," Berlusconi told Italian media. "Only the president and his spokesman must be allowed to intervene."

Berlusconi was in Gdansk, Poland, for ceremonies marking the outbreak of World War II 70 years ago. His comments were met with surprise by EU officials. And a prominent EU lawmaker expressed outrage.

The conservative premier has made similar demands before, though not in such strong terms.

On Tuesday he was apparently reacting to reported criticism from the commission over Italy's recent deal with Libya to return migrants to the North African country without screening them for asylum claims.

Dennis Abbot, a commission spokesman, said the EU was requesting information from Italy and Malta on a boat of immigrants that was turned back on Monday.

Italian media also quoted Abbot as reminding Rome that under international rules migrants have a right to request asylum.

Berlusconi said it was "unacceptable" that spokespeople at the EU would give "ammunition" to the opposition to criticize a national government. Italy's deal with Libya has drawn fire from the center-left, as well as the United Nations, the Vatican and human rights groups.

Abbot said Tuesday there was nothing unusual about the commission's request.

"The request for information is a normal process in situations like this. The commission wants to help, but if it is to help, it needs accurate information," he said. "The commission is objective in these matters, we appreciate the difficulties that member states are facing and are helping them to find solutions to alleviate the pressures they are under."

Martin Schulz, the leader of the Socialist group of the European Parliament called on Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso "to react immediately and personally against (Berlusconi's) outrageous attack on the European Institutions."

The German lawmaker is a longtime critic of Berlusconi. The Italian premier once sparked outrage in the EU Parliament by comparing Schulz to a Nazi concentration camp guard.